Ten-man Finn Harps’ almost produced the shock of the FAI Cup quarter-finals - only for Drogheda United to scramble a draw on a night of high drama at Finn Park.
Finn Harps 1
Drogheda United 1
As is so often the case in and around Ballybofey, talisman Kevin McHugh provided the inspiration for side from the Twin Towns.
The 33-year-old scored a stunning opening goal on 22 minutes, curling past Michael Slingermann and into the postage stamp top corner.
A tempestuous second half saw Harps left-back Ciaran Coll receive a straight red card and he was joined by his manager Peter Hutton on the sidelines for his vociferous appeals.
McHugh’s goal looked like it would be enough for Harps, third from bottom in the First Division, to seal a place in the semi-finals of the competition for the first time since 1999 only for Mick Daly to slot home an 85th equaliser for Drogheda.
The draw marked the conclusion of a difficult week for the Louth outfit, whom are to part company with manager Mick Cooke at the end of the season following a disagreement over the direction the club is taking.
How the former Monaghan United manager would love to end his tenure on a high and still has that chance with the FAI Cup with Friday’s reprieve and, of course, the EA Sports League Cup final against Shamrock Rovers to come next Saturday.
The visiting support made their feelings felt with a banner stating ‘In Mick Cooke we trust.’
Drogheda also this week learned their striker Gary O’Neill will undergo treatment for testicular cancer and the Drogheda squad warmed up beforehand with t-shirts in support of their teammate.
Michael Funston made an enterprising break in from the right on four minutes and warmed the hands of Slingermann and the Drogheda goalkeeper then mad to be alert to get down to save a Damien McNulty header following a free-kick whipped in by Thomas McMonagle.
But the home side were 6/1 outsiders in the bookmakers prior to the tie and favourites Drogheda gradually began to exert control.
Ciaran Gallagher in the Harps goal made a vital save from Ryan Brennen with his chest and Alan Byrne headed inches over. Gallagher then made an excellent one-handed save from a curling free-kick from Brennan on 18 minutes.
But if Harps’ opener came slightly against the run of play, they came within a whisker of a second as the balance of power certainly shifted with Drogheda still struggling to find their feet.
A minute after the goal,
McHugh’s deft touch split the away defence like the Red Sea and Coll was denied by Slingermann in a one-on-one. The off-balanced Pat McCann could only steer the loose rebound over the crossbar.
Then, on 25 minutes, with the crowd trying to catch its breath, McHugh, this time from a Josh Mailey ball forward, played in McCann but again Slingermann was equal to the close range effort.
And the American’s second bite at the cherry was snuffed out by a combination of Slingermann and Alan Byrne.
There was an edginess about Drogheda in the first half as a handful of pernickety incidents saw Shane Grimes, Ryan Brennan and Gavin Brennan all booked.
However, it was Harps’ collective blood that was boiling 11 minutes into the second half when Coll was given a straight red by referee Tom Connolly.
The off-the-ball incident with David Cassidy saw the Drogheda player grounded with a retributive shove but Hutton, the Harps manager, was in the vicinity and was livid with the decision made by Connolly having been notified of the incident by fourth official Rob Rogers.
One sensed Hutton’s frustrations came as a result of no action being taken against Cassidy for originally shoving Coll.
Hutton was then banished to the stand for his protestations. There were disagreements and heckles breaking out around the pitch like bushfires with players on the turf here and there.
Harps followers were furious afterwards when Funston left the field with what appeared to be a broken nose and McNulty looking for broken teeth.
That tetchiness dragged through the second half and with few chances being created, it certainly suited the team that were leading than chasing. Substitute Jason Marks’ effort, comfortably gathered in the bread basket by Gallagher, was Drogheda’s first shot on goal in the entire second half.
However, with Harps looking capable of the unlikeliest of results, an
upfield break saw Paul McVeigh misplace a pass when the chance of a break on was. Marks instantly fed Cassidy on the left and his centre was swept home by Daly.
It was a heartbreaking conclusion for the gallant hosts but they’ll come out fighting on Monday such was their level of frustration following the draw.
Finn Harps: Ciaran Gallagher; Damien McNulty, Josh Mailey, Keith Cowan, Thomas McMonagle; Michael Funston (Paul McVeigh 76), Pat McCann, Shaun McGowan, Ciaran Coll; Thomas Bonnar (Mark Forker 62); Kevin McHugh.
Drogheda United: Michael Slingermann; Mick Daly, Alan McNally (Eric Foley 80) Derek Predergast, Shane Grimes (Peter Hynes 64); Alan Byrne; David Cassidy, Paul O’Conor, Ryan Brennan, Gavin Brennan (Jason Marks 55); Declan O’Brien.
Referee: Tom Connolly.